Review of 5th Set for Powerlifting: I um.. I didn’t uh… what?

BOOK OVERVIEW

Corey ‘Swede’ Burns’ is well known in the annals of internet strength culture, having been a regular on various EliteFTS platforms and voted 2016 “Coach of the Year” (though, while mentioned in all of his bios, I can’t find the details about it anywhere).

5th Set is Swede’s strength program e-book that follows in the steps of 5/3/1, Juggernaut and the Cube Method. Like those predecessors, the book outlines it’s unique prescription for organizing the squat, bench and deadlift along with giving a concrete progression pattern for advancing weight and work over time.

And there’s some other stuff.

Flames are tight.

It really is the lack of focus and organization that hinders “5th Set”. Right after the start of the discussion of “5th Set” programming principles, the book pauses for 12 pages to go over how to peak for and compete at a powerlifting meet. Fluff segments throughout the book give lip service recommendations for equipment, technique, how to keep a training notebook and what weekdays you can schedule your workouts on (seriously, chart and everything) and those are awkwardly shuffled into the broader discussion of how to run the actual program.

I was originally critical of the length of the e-book, as the word count sits around 33,000 which equates to 65-ish pages in a normal book (stretched to 112 with font and formatting). That adds up to a week or so worth of writing for someone who clears out their schedule and the price of $40 for a digital copy made it look pretty over-valued. After re-visiting Brandon Lilly’s Cube Method, which features 1/3 of the content, I now look a little more favorably at the length.

If the entirety of the body was dedicated to comprehensively laying out the rules and potential options for running “5th Set”, the length would have been just fine, but his attempt to squeeze all of these peripheral topics into this page count made it look and feel like little more than a collection of blog posts.

The book struggles with a lot of the same issues that similar e-books do. A lot of potentially valuable information gets left behind and the focus instead zig zags between broad life philosophy and an arrangement of sets and reps that tries really, really hard to be different. That’s not to say that there isn’t value in the book (there certainly is), but if you’ve read the others out there, you will find most of the information in here derivative and packaged in a way that is scattered and un-intuitive.

I get the feeling that the success of previous powerlifting and strength-training e-books led to a gold rush of sorts, pushing anyone with a following to try to profit off of information products that can be written in a weekend and sold with zero overhead. It is just painfully obvious that a couple of months of writing and re-organizing (and maybe an editor) could have justified the sales price and made this a staple book in general lifting culture instead of an example of, “yeah, I remember when I threw 40 bucks at that thing”.

Foundational Principles

I’ll kick this off by addressing the principle that doesn’t get explicitly stated in bullet points but is obviously upheld in the organization of the programming. I would summarize the primary theme of “5th Set” as recovery, recovery, RECOVERY!

The longer work week, the focus on only the squat OR the deadlift, the very low starting RPE, the INCREDIBLY slow weight progression; every piece of the program structure exists deliberately to prevent over-reaching or progressing too fast. He even offers a ‘lower recoverability’ template for those who find his already-dialed-back approach to be too much.

Swede acknowledges that new lifters respond to everything and it gets trickier to progress forward as time goes on:

In the beginning anything works. ……..It took me only 2 years to add 105 pounds to an already impressive bench for someone my size and age…. the next 105 pounds took me about 12 years or so….. It is very difficult for an experienced lifter to improve substantially on all three lifts during the same training cycle. It took me a long time to realize, however, that it is possible…. Here is how that is accomplished: improved technical proficiency.

I was simultaneously thrilled that he mentioned the differences between new and advanced lifters and let down that he gave such a wet fart of an answer. From my vantage point, I can see how the difference is the ability to recover; new lifters are made of magic and rubber bands and can do anything. More seasoned lifters often get much more out of less.

This means, in general, a stronger athlete can benefit greatly from a high volume of lighter, crisp technique work where matching the effort of an overeager novice might leave them burnt out. But few others will connect those dots.

Even if he doesn’t do a deep dive into the ‘why’, the necessary workarounds are there all the same. These tactics are important to understand and actually give a lot of value to Swede’s approach.

Now, to address the things he does explicitly say:

Swede begins the e-book,

It’s all been done before…. ….The concepts you will find in this program are no exception. The synergy from the combined application of these concepts, however, is something new entirely and is what sets this program apart from everything else. 5thSet is truly greater than the sum of its parts.”

There is nothing new under the sun, abso-freaking-lutely. There hasn’t been a major shift in training knowledge in something like 50 years and I still would credit the advancement in world records since then to an increased talent pool as opposed to cutting edge training methods. The stuff that works today has been around for a very long time.

As far as the ‘application of these concepts (being) something new entirely’, the program being ‘set apart from everything else’ and ‘truly greater than the sum of its parts’, well, don’t break your arm jerking yourself off, there, Swede.

I get it, he’s selling it to the reader. But this program is so obviously derivative that his insistence that it’s actually new was just baffling. He wants to call it new without calling it new, but the amalgamation of old ideas into a new, better product only works if they fit together in a way that solves a specific problem. I don’t think they do and I’ll get to that in the section on Split and Progression.

If you chase two rabbits, both get away.”

Occasionally 5th Set contains a good nugget of grandfatherly wisdom that the reader will benefit from. This one was part of the discussion of only emphasizing the squat or the deadlift in your program and I really like this approach. Putting one on the back-burner with speed/technique work gives you some extra recovery juice for the heavier workouts and likely increases your odds of improving both over just burning out.

That being said, there surely is a way to emphasize both in training, it just requires a few extra layers of complexity that are outside of the scope of the average reader. Giving your audience something that they can actually comply with is just as important as how well the program works if it was hypothetically ran perfectly.

I used Prilepin’s table to determine the target volume. I found a novel way to self-regulate, while keeping almost all of the work at a given percentage.

Good grief, don’t get me started on Prilipen’s chart. I see it as the mating call of psuedo-intellecutals in this field. Long story short, we don’t have the data from Prilipen’s studies (that I’m aware of), the Soviet studies have never been reproduced (kind of important in science), they were taken from Olympic lifting (different movements), from elite athletes (not novice or intermediates), the chart is extraordinarily vague AND we know for a fact that most of the greats in powerlifting work well outside of it.

For everyone that calls it a ‘good guideline’, I can tell you that only doing odd reps only is a guideline and it may actually work. For me to give you IQ brownie points, the prescription you give has to give an obvious improvement to the outcome. For powerlifting, Prilipen’s chart just doesn’t.

The big thing that grinds my gears is that “5th Set” is based off of a single amrap set at the end of very sub-maximal sets across….. AMRAPS AND PRILIPEN’S CHART DO NOT GO TOGETHER. If you are doing one, you are, by definition, ignoring the other.

He also did not find a ‘novel way to self-regulate’. The book recommends adding 5lbs a week for a set period of time, whether 5lbs is 7% of your max or 0.7%. That’s a process that’s A.) been around for a century and B.) is not self-regulation. If he’s referring to self-regulation as the amrap at the end of sub-max sets (which is a stretch in definition), I first saw that published in the Greyskull LP, which takes a Starting Strength-ish linear progression and adds extra intensity by having the user take the last set to failure.

I’ve heard them called ‘plus sets’ and they’ve been around for a long time. Juggernaut uses them to calculate new maxes for each 3 week mesocyle and Doug Young used them to plan weight jumps week to week 50 years ago. Both are examples of auto-regulation and neither are present in 5th Set.

Split

The split for 5th Set is comparable to most Western/American powerlifting programs. It centers around the competitive lifts (squat, bench and deadlift) and follows them up with a variation (mechanically similar movement, or MSM, as Swede insists on calling it) and then isolation work. It’s in the same vein of powerbuilding that has influenced so many other programs; workouts start with a strength progression on the main movement and follows that up with targeted variations and isolation work that are used to continue putting mass on your frame.

It works and it works well.

One of the features that I’m a big fan of is the 9 day work week, applying 4 workouts to 3 days in each 7-day week. It’s the same pacing I’ve been on for a long time and it has proven to be one of the deadliest methods of pacing hard efforts and preventing ‘bad days’.

———– Monday —–Wednesday—- Friday

Week 1 — Bench 1 ——Squat—– —Bench 2

Week 2 — Deadlift ——Bench 1—– -Squat

Week 3 — Bench 2 ——Deadlift ——Bench 1…..

If you feel that you need to be locked in to a seven day training schedule and you have to hit certain lifts on the same day every week, you can absolutely do that. Just do it with another program. 5thSet is not designed to run that way.”

I get this statement, as I have had immense push back every time I try to get a client or trainee to adapt to something outside of a nice 7 day split. Lifters have the ‘7-day standard’ burned into their brain and it creates a really dumb yet persistent problem.

That being said, the time-line of a microcycle is one of the most malleable parts of a program and should be adjusted based on need. A good chunk of trainees (like the novices and intermediates who will be reading “5th Set”) won’t benefit much from a 9 day split over a 7 while the elite certainly will.

Instead of the endless, inane templates at the end of the book that only vary the minutiae of accessory work, the book would have gained a lot from a short list of ways to vary the length of the work-week or structure of the split. It would have filled in some big conceptual pieces regarding the nature of programming decision making while completely maintaining the integrity of what makes “5th Set” what it is. I was bummed that he put so many eggs in the ‘9-day work week’ basket when it is really an arbitrary feature.

Progression

Here’s the bare bones:

80% x 5×2, hitting the last set to failure and adding 5lbs each session for the duration of the 45 day mesocycle. Deload, then go into mesocycle #2. No new training max, no jump in percentage, just right back to 80%.

The program makes a big deal about starting at 77.5% on first mesocycle, for some reason. It’s a negligible difference (10lbs to a 500 squatter) and the program keeps you in that threshold for 5 months, anyways.

This along with a weird amount of time spent telling you to round down to the nearest 5lb increment gave me ‘Wendler and his 90% training max’ vibes. Where Wendler insisted on his recommendation to solve a problem with weight selection in a substantial way, this is very much quibbling over something that doesn’t register in any meaningful way to anyone. It’s very forced.

The ‘5th Set Protocol’ (which hits my ear like a sharp knife on a dinner plate) is only ran for the bench and either squat OR deadlift. The movement you feel less dialed into gets put into the ‘Technique/Speed Template’ that goes as follows:

70% x 5×3, adding 5lbs each session.

Yup, that’s it. Triples at a 12-15 rep max.

Swede then prescribes ‘strength work’ for a similar variation after this day, but done at the same percentage. So deads on this progression would be followed by rack pulls with 3×3 with 70% (assuming % of your rack pull max, but it’s not clarified). This is akin to deload work and it’s done on a 9 day split with an actual deload every 5 microcycles.

The plan is to run 3 mesocycles (each lasting 6 9-day microcycles, or 54 days), then go into a 4 microcycle long contest peak (36 days).

A couple of things:

First, the program takes you back to 80% of your STARTING max each time, so you stay within 25 or so pounds of the same weight…. for 5 MONTHS.

I didn’t misinterpret that. Swede has a chart showing an example progression for a 550 squatter and 600 deadlifter.

For the 550 squatter, meso 1 runs between 425 and 445 and mesos 2 and 3 run between 435 to 455. That’s a 30lb spread start to finish, which is right at 5%.

The same athlete with a 600 pull does ‘technique/speed’, literally staying between 415 and 435 for over 150 days!!

LOL……. WHAT??

Swede is masterful….. at looking thoughtfully away from the camera.

Whatever the rest of 5th Set gets right, the main progression more than makes up for.

Then, there’s a 4 week microcycle so that you can peak ‘at any given time’. The peak involves the following.

Wk 1 —- max 1, assist 75% 3-5

Wk 2 —- 90% x 1, assist 75% 3-5

Wk 3 —- 80% x 3, assist dropped

Wk 4 —- speed work – 5×1-3 55%

Over half a year features exactly two workouts at or above 90%.

If I just look at the peak by itself, it places the heaviest single 36 days out. For anyone who is not an elite heavyweight, that’s absurd. Novices need mere days, intermediates might need 2 weeks or so and, of all the world-class pullers in strongman I know, most are set if they hit their heaviest week 2, reduce volume week 3 and deload for the contest week 4.

This looks like something Julius Maddox would run leading into an 800lb bench press.

How it Ranks

Learning Curve

This score represents how much time has to be invested in order to run the program effectively. Programs that are easier to implement for the layperson will receive a higher score, however that doesn’t always equal ‘better’. Programs with very short learning curves will usually lack in fatigue management, adaptability and sustainability; there is a definite trade off.

The learning curve with 5th Set is pretty minimal. Like so many other e-books that struggle to explain exactly what features are crucial to the author’s program (“don’t change X or you aren’t doing my program!”) while explaining where you can change and customize to your needs, there is bound to be a bit of confusion on the first read-through. But once you digest the progression schemes and the timeline they fall on, you can jump to any one of the templates at the back and go to town.

The 5th Set progression itself is a simple linear progression on auto-pilot; no decision making required. Just load the bar, do your doubles and go ham on the last set. Add 5lbs and set a reminder on your phone for when the mesocycle is up.

There’s no real thorough discussion of weak-point-targeted exercise selection for assistance work. Swede seems to like rack pulls for deads, front squats for squats, 2 board benches for bench so that’s what pops up in the templates. That keeps the learning curve short and is probably good enough for most, but it sacrifices an important opportunity to educate the lifter with something they should have a handle on sooner rather than later.

4/6: The clunky structure of the e-book, the new 9-day microcycle and the moving pieces of the actual progression will require a bit from your attention span, but overall there is not a lot of decision making going on.

Appropriateness

This score represents how appropriate the recommendations are for the target audience. Programs that cast a wide net and are effective for a greater number of lifters will receive a higher score, as will programs that service the needs of a niche audience.

Program templates that satisfy problems for more advanced lifters but are packaged to the novices and intermediates who typically buy them are harder to rate for appropriateness. We know that newer lifters grow from damn near everything and that can often be a justification for solving the pressing problems of advanced lifters first and just passing it to the white-belts.

If I’m considering the experience and education of those likely to purchase 5th Set and implement it’s methods, I have to knock it on appropriateness.

The split is fantastic for intermediates and up but leaves a ton on the table for beginners (who will undoubtedly be the ones running this).

And for those intermediates and up who the split is appropriate for? For them, the progression makes no damn sense. It just crawls at a snails pace. I sincerely don’t know how Swede looked at the summary of a full macrocycle (3 “5th Set” mesos and a contest peak) and didn’t see an obvious problem.

In his own example, a 550 squatter stays exactly between 425 and 455 for over 150 DAYS!! The book explicitly refers to itself as a method for competitive powerlifting hopefuls. But that is not powerlifting programming. That is not periodization. That’s some strange form of step loading that implies rapid gains can come from a short contest peak if you spend a ridiculous amount of time pigeon-holed in the same 5% range.

2/6: There is enough rote work to make growth likely for most who commit to it and the peak at the end might give some insight into prepping for a first meet. But the unnecessarily gentle progression and long stretches without any variation (5 months at a time!) makes the heart and soul of the program fall flat.

Fatigue Management

One of the biggest obstacles for lifters is learning how to pace hard efforts with adequate recovery. Programs that take special care to balance those two things will receive the highest score, while programs that disregard the need for recovery will be downgraded.

Fatigue management obviously scores high, as the excessive degree to which it governs the program makes up one of my key gripes.

Any trainee has to have fatigue management on their radar and understand the different ways you can meet that goal.

You can spread out your work over a longer timeframe.

You can start really light and give yourself a big ramp to build up.

You can reset frequenty.

You can avoid maximal efforts.

You can limit the number of compound movements in a workout.

You can limit the focus on how many lifts you want to build at once.

You can deload regularly.

“5th Set” LITERALLY does all of them at the same time and STILL has a lighter version for extra recoverability!

As the program is specifically written, it is most appropriate for elite lifters, specifically heavy weights, who need lighter volume and a really long time in between hard attempts. Unless you are an 800lb squatter, there isn’t a good reason to go so hard on the recovery. Everyone should have a handle on each tactic so they can implement one or two as needed to keep things fresh and moving forward.

6/6: It’s the most recoverable program I’ve ever come across. Whether that’s a good thing remains to be seen.

Specificity

Specificity generally refers to how focused the program is on to a singular competitive goal. More specificity merits a higher score, but that is not always ‘better’. Some programs appeal to lifters who are recreational, have more generic goals or are in an off-season and need variety. Since long-term specific performance requires periods of non-specificity, programs that include off-season and contest-specific modes will receive the highest score.

Specificity ranks low here for a couple of reasons. The first obvious ones is that ‘powerbuilder’ type strength programs are inherently less-specific; this is because much of the work gets allocated liberally to non-specific developmental movements which takes time away from rigid technical practice.

(Remember, non-specific doesn’t mean that it doesn’t work, it just means that less of the work is spent replicating contest-specific conditions.)

The program does prioritize development by using the main lifts (albeit very infrequently) and keeps the percentages in a range that allows for better technical practice. The trade-off of the low percentages is that effort only comes on the amrap set; that works well enough to spur further growth but that strain is very different than the strain under near-maximal weights.

Now, I don’t like any program that aims for specificity year-round. The consensus of all effective sports programs is that specificity has to change according to how far away you are from game day. But 5th Set keeps the foot off the gas for 160+ days out of a 180 day macrocycle. That’s pretty lopsided.

For general, long term development aimed at the recreational lifter, I actually don’t hate that. But consider the author’s own words:

5thSet is geared toward people who want to compete in the sport of raw powerlifting

Hmmm…

2/6: Technical practice is limited to 5 sets per exercise every 9 days and training thresholds only reach 90% for 2 cycles of a 4 microcycle peak. This is a peculiar approach to competition prep for a self-described ‘powerlifting program’.

Adaptability

This scores the program on how well it can be modified to suit the needs of the individual. These types of programs will require longer learning curves, but that is necessary for optimizing performance over the course of a career. Higher adaptability scores are given to programs that give A.) different options and B.) specific recommendations for how and when to implement them. Programs that are fixed in their recommendations or offer a scattershot list of options that will likely confuse the reader get a lower score.

Every program is infinitely adaptable if the user wants to get under the hood and start ripping out wires. This score hinges heavily on how user-friendly the text makes that process.

5th Set insists on holding the 9 day split as sacred, regardless of the level of advancement of the lifter. This would have been one of the easiest and most valuable areas to describe potential options, but either writing those out was too cumbersome or Swede really thinks a 9 day split is the most important component to recovery management. The progression scheme is also described as being non-optional, so that really only leaves exercise selection as our means of personalizing 5th Set.

He gives 3 variation options for each lift to serve as the MSM, or mechanically similar movement and some bullet points to give the reader insight into why you might choose them. This list is enough variety to satisfy most people who aren’t very far along but the fact that exercise selection is the only point of freedom here means this short list of variations is definitely lacking.

There are template options in the back that illustrate different options for accessory work. They aren’t especially helpful, as the way they were written makes it difficult to compare how or why they are different or when you might choose one over the other. A chart of exercises next to a chart of set and rep schemes followed by ‘choose 3 in column A and use any progression from column B’ would have been much more intuitive and taken a page. This, I think, was more about filling up page space.

2/6: Unless you bring an understanding of exercise selection or are otherwise willing to color outside the lines, 5th Set doesn’t give much wiggle room.

Sustainability

No program can map out the future of a competitive lifter completely, but more complete programs will be sustainable for longer or otherwise address the changes that need to happen in order to progress over subsequent cycles. Programs that feature enough moving parts to be ran successfully for years will receive the highest scores while those that only can be ran in the short-term will be docked.

5th Set ranks high for sustainability for the same reason it ranks high in fatigue management: it takes every method of maximizing recovery and applies it all at once.

Yes, you can run this program forever and never over-train. But you will also inevitably go through periods of stagnation from never changing or increasing the stress over a 5 month cycle. Single-set amraps within the same 5% range will only do so much for so long and part of the point of a powerlifting specific program is to tell you how to manipulate stress and specificity over an entire season in a way that is both productive and sustainable. 5th Set just does this by avoiding stress altogether. In fact, I would go so far as to call this an anti-periodization program.

6/6: Super sustainable, but for the wrong reasons.

Gimmick Factor

A gimmick is defined as any unique approach that serves a marketing purpose and does not directly add a benefit to the lifter’s pursuit of strength. This includes arbitrary training splits or assortment exercises, unnecessary complexity or novelty and any convoluted set and rep schemes.A high score here represents a very low gimmick factor.

The program is named after the ‘plus set’ that happens after the 4 sets of doubles at 80%. That leads me to believe it was intended to be the heart and soul of the program. One set, as many as you can do, add some weight next time.

Let’s forget that this is the same backbone to 5/3/1, Juggernaut, Greyskull LP and Doug Young’s auto-regulated program and they all structured it tighter and more logically than 5th Set did. Yes, it’s an easy approach that works for a period of time for the right population of lifters but it doesn’t work as well for everyone and it certainly works less if it’s the only thing you do for 90% of your training year.

There’s enough stuff that is principally based that will lead to some growth in spite of the programs shortcomings, so I can’t go crazy on the gimmick score. But that cover made it really hard not to.

3/6: 5th Set is a derivative program with a baffling progression structure that is somewhat saved by focus on consistent work with good movements.

25/42

5th Set is a derivative program with a baffling progression structure. Itt painted with too broad a brush in stretching itself to satisfy the e-book niche, insisting that everyone is better off by following the hyper-careful rate of progress that offers no actual periodized moves. Read it for the sparse nuggets of training wisdom but, as an educational tool to give insight into programming for competitive lifters, skip it.

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